The Birth of Rock & Roll
I’m watching a seagull hitching a ride on air currents around the ferry, slipping effortlessly across the boat, cocking its head from right to left, alert for bits of floating garbage or some kid’s spilled Cracker Jacks on the iron deck. I squint against the bright sunlight. The dancing reflections from the bay flare out into stars, sparkling like the sequins on LaVern Baker’s silver dress, when she sang ‘Tweedle-Dee-Dee’ in the spotlights at Alan Freed’s Brooklyn Paramount show last year.
A cool breeze balloons my shirt and I think of coasting my bicycle down the north side of the Bayonne Bridge, into an unknown part of New Jersey. We slow to dock at Staten Island; I’m running into the covered staircase and vaulting down to the car deck—a steel landing at a time. If I had my bike, I’d be kicking the gears, ready to get a jump up the ramp ahead of the trucks, but not now. I’m meeting my friend Epstein in St. George and he doesn’t ride.
The bike used to be my secret life—out into Staten Island, New Jersey, Breezy Point, Far Rockaway—freedom! But now I’ve got a transit pass, a free ride to anywhere, the whole city is mine. And it’s all rock and roll.
I remember Billy O’Brien asked me in eighth grade if I listened to rock and roll and I lied and said yes and he said you’re lying—go to WINS ten-ten on the dial and listen to Alan Freed and you’ll know what rock and roll is. Billy can tell when you’re lying because he’s a fat liar himself, but he was right about WINS. I heard Alan Freed sending out a dedication for “Get a Job” to all the kids on Ovington Avenue and I found out that Ronnie loves Betty forever. Rock and roll told me Rama-Lama-Ding-Dong, Tutti-Frutti and Sha-La-La. I heard that there were red blue jeans and earth angels, and the Moonglows taught me the Ten Commandments of Love. I went to the Brooklyn Paramount and saw Chuck Berry squat down, motor-vatin’ his guitar across the stage, racing an overheated Cadillac and screaming at Mabelline. It was amazing.
Now I’m running up the ferry ramp and now the concrete stairs. Only the Manhattan boats have upper deck walkways—from Brooklyn, we come out the bottom at the St. George terminal, source point for every bus route on Staten Island.
There’s Epstein. He’s coming from the same bus I take to visit my old Norwegian aunt in Spring, to get her window screens out of storage, wash them, and put them up for a few bucks. Epstein comes from the known universe, Victory Boulevard, but we’re going to Stapleton—into the unexplored zone—on the word of a man called ‘Jocko.’
“…captain of the rocket ship show, ee-too-da-oh your man Jocko.”
Allan Freed claims the kingdom at WINS with his “big-beat sound”, but Rock-o-Jocko—a rhyming, jiving voice of authentic rhythm and blues—echoes out through the static, from WOV in Jersey twelve-eighty on your AM dial…dial…dial. It’s the real thing and me and Epstein are cool enough to know it.
We’re following the V-O-S-A (“Voice Of Sound Advice”, from Mr. Jock) to the Bay Street bus and on to the Staten Island Paramount Theater. Bobby “Blue” Bland is playing a matinee. Jocko says he’s Bo Diddley’s cousin—he’s got to be good. It’s Staten Island so no one else from school will make the show and we can say it was great, no matter what.
“Comb your knowledge box daddy-o, lookin’ sharp for the Island show! Jocko Henderson, comin’ at ya on that Bad Motorcycle, WOV, Newark New Jersey.”
We’re lucky. The bus doesn’t sit for twenty minutes after we get on. It takes off, out of the terminal, and I’m looking at familiar turf down Bay Street—we always walked this way from the ferry to the public swimming pool, even when I was a little kid. The boat stayed at five cents when the busses went up to seven and the ride across the bay was cool and breezy in the summer, so we swam at St. George, instead of Sunset in Brooklyn.
The bus swings left, just past the pool. I usually cut right on the Victory line. Most of the original passengers get off before Victory Boulevard turns uphill. I never rode my bike here, down Bay Street. The north shore was the way to go—all level and it takes you around to the big junkyards and the Jersey bridges.
I’m listening to the sound of money dropping through the glass walled coin box that jangles like a pinball machine as each new rider pays his fare. The usual combination rings three times: nickel, penny, penny. But more and more they’re dropping seven pennies and it sounds like a Bo Diddley beat.
“Bo Dil’y, Bo Dil’y, where ya bin?”
“Up yo house and down a-gin.”
I tell Epstein I think Jocko means that Bobby “Blue” Bland just sounds like Bo Diddley, but Epstein still thinks they’re related—real cousins.
I look out the window, following the waterfront still visible down the side streets that cut into Bay from the left. Riding in cars, on the sidewalks, coming out of stores, all the faces are black.
I tell Epstein about the time I went with the youth group to visit a Baptist Church deep in the middle of Brooklyn—on some subway line I had never heard of before. That was back when I was twelve and had no transit pass. I went because I had a crush on Arlene Olsen, one of the blonde goodie-goodies from the church I used to go to. What a difference between being twelve and being fourteen! Epstein is laughing. I guess he didn’t have church groups but he knows what I’m talking about.
The church council set up these visits between congregations and we went out there with Ingrid Tollefsen, leader of the teen conference that usually arranged hayrides and chaperoned mixers designed to keep our Scandinavian hormones close to home. Along with Arlene and me, there were two other guys who also had the hots for her and three more girls in their Sunday white gloves and wide skirts stuffed with crinolines. We followed Ingrid out of the subway and through the streets, like a flock of little white sheep. Ingrid had the directions and the address but she grew nervous and more tentative as we got closer to the second floor meeting hall where we could now hear the Baptists singing their gospel hymns. It was not like any Lutheran rendition of J.S. Bach that we had ever heard.
I’m cracking Epstein up with the story of how Ingrid got more and more terrified and then we found the church and we had to go up this wide staircase with wooden banisters and linoleum on the landings. And the singing is booming behind big double doors at the top of the stairs and I really want to get in there, but we seem to be walking slower and slower as we go up. Then Ingrid knocks at the top landing. She’s shaking and I think she’s going to cry “sanctuary!” when the doors fly open and a brown-skinned man with a huge friendly smile beams out at us.
“Welcome,” He says.
Behind him his entire congregation of smiling faces looks toward us. Ingrid shrieks and runs back down the stairs.
“It’s the wrong place—come on!” she howls and all the other kids follow her.
I stand there for a moment watching the man’s smile change into a hundred different expressions—none good. He shoots me a pleading glance and calls out down the staircase.
“No! Come back.”
Finally his eyes fall in disappointment and resignation.
“Didya stay?” Epstein asks.
“Nah, hadda go with the girls.”
The bus driver tells us we’re at the Paramount Theater, so now we’re tumbling out the front door and running a block to get to the small crowd under a marquee with big black letters—“Bobby ‘Blue’ Bland”. We hardly see the turning heads of people in the street noticing us; we’re next to the box office looking at a two-color poster with a photo of “The Nutmegs” popping out of a starburst.
Epstein says, “Well all-root, The Nutmegs to boot.”
The middle-aged lady in the ticket booth is laughing when we pay, “You boys sure you got the right place?”
“Staten Island Paramount,” I say.
Epstein says, “Bo Diddley’s cousin!”
We’re tripping down the sloping aisle in the dark, looking for seats. This place is nothing like the huge Brooklyn Paramount; it’s just a neighborhood movie house like the Bay Ridge or the Alpine. I have the same out-of-place feeling that I get when I take the bus to the Loews Fortway, just beyond my neighborhood, except this is Stapleton. The theater is filling up and I hear remarks from people behind us, like, “look at that!” and “what they doing here?” We spot some empty seats down front. Epstein is saying we’ll be really close to the musicians.
A bunch of girls sit right behind us and they’re giggling non-stop. Epstein says if Bobby “Blue” Bland is really Bo Diddley’s cousin maybe he’ll have a square guitar like Bo. I don’t think so. The girls are taking turns running through the row in front of us to steal a look at us. Some of them are mugging silly faces and some are doing little dance steps when they pass us making their friends in the row behind shriek with laughter. I’m having fun but Epstein is trying to ignore them; he brings up our old argument about the extra words at the end of the record “Bo Diddley” by Bo Diddley.
“Gotta be, ‘that’s a good one’”, he says.
“Yeah,” I agree. I’m tired of arguing about those three or four garbled words from the recording session, barely audible on the run-out groove of the Chess forty-five. Who cares? It’s only the music that matters. It’s like those mumbled words people say when they want to insult you after they’ve said something nice to your face.
I’m watching the last girl who ran by; I think she smiled right at me and now she’s running back to her friends from the far aisle. The theater is packed and I’m seeing that everyone in the place is looking directly at Epstein and me. The house lights go down. The girls behind us stop giggling.
I’m expecting the kind of hysteria we had at Alan Freed’s show in Brooklyn: Kids standing, screaming in the foreground, talking about staying for two more shows, running out to the lobby to call their parents to say they are never coming home; fights breaking out in the balconies; cops taking the punks out. It’s not like that—the stage is not a bright spot in the distance. We are so close it’s like we’re in the show. The whole audience is in the show. Spotlights are kicking out from the shiny purple lapels of the Nutmegs’ matching suits. They’re smiling and they’re looking at Epstein and me from the stage. I can see the run down heels on the drummer’s shoes. The music is loud and alive. Some of the girls are dancing in the aisle. I’m dancing in my chair.
One by one the groups come out on stage and they’re looking at us, smiling and shaking their heads. Are the musicians talking about us backstage? We probably stand out like burning fourth-of-July sparklers in the middle of the audience. Two white boys in white tee shirts.
We don’t care—the music is great; Bobby “Blue“ Bland sings “Woke Up Screaming”, “Bobby’s Blues” and a couple of other songs. He doesn’t have a square guitar and he doesn’t really sound like Bo Diddley but we’re not disappointed. This is better than anything we have ever seen.
It seems like way too short a show and now it’s over. Epstein and I are walking out, rehearsing what we’ll tell the guys at school on Monday. We’re blinking in the bright sunlight and trying to find the bus stop back to the ferry terminal.
A couple of musicians are standing out front having a smoke. I can’t really see much of them except the colors of their shiny suits. One of them is calling us over.
“Hey you boys like the music?”
Epstein and I both say “Yeah!” at the same time. Like we’re singing a chorus. Everybody’s laughing.
Now my eyes are almost adjusted to the glare. I can see it’s Bobby “Blue” Bland himself talking to us. I’m glad Epstein isn’t asking him if he’s Bo Diddley’s cousin.
He says, “How'd y’all hear about us?”
I’m still squinting when I look at his face and I’m seeing that man at the Baptist Church on the second floor in Brooklyn, losing his Christian smile, his congregation shaking their heads, the idiots I came with running down the stairs.
“Ee-too-da-oh…my man Jocko,” I say, “Cap’n of the rocket ship show.”
Author’s Note: This is a true autobiographical story. The piece is about (and in the voice of) me as a young, cloistered white boy in the 1950s—my teen rebelliousness and braggadocio bolstered by my “discovery” of Rhythm and Blues—venturing accidentally into a black ghetto—neighborhood which, at the time, was terrifying to most of my white contemporaries, and finding that world joyous and welcoming.